My Nan, my mom’s mom, was a colorful woman. When my siblings and I spent the night at her house, she’d let us drop food coloring into our cups of reconstituted powdered milk to make them whatever hue we fancied. She lined up neon-haired troll figurines above her bingo cards for luck at her regular Friday night church fundraising games. She’d bring bright ginger ale and Jell-O pies to summer gatherings. When she was feeling bullish about female independence, she’d tell slightly off-colored jokes to her granddaughters that signaled why they didn’t necessarily require a husband to get along just fine in life. And for all the kids’ birthdays, she’d tint cake batter mint green, strawberry pink, and sherbet orange, and bake the batter in wafer ice cream cones to eschew wasteful cupcake liners (and potentially messy ice cream) in a fun way.

In her early 80s, she drove a Meyer-lemon yellow, American-made bug of a car to deliver her Avon orders and visit the fellas living at the VFW home on East Street to bring them crocheted hats. On the dash was a mellowed yellow sticky note that read “Don’t forget Jesus at 2 PM on Tuesday!!!” Unconventional in her church attendance, she rarely went to Mass with us on Sundays, but she took a turn sitting alone in St. Mary’s church each week for an hour, keeping watch over consecrated Eucharist (bread transubstantiated into the body of Christ as believed by Catholics) stored in the brass tabernacle to the right of the alter. I’m sure Jesus got an interesting earful on those Tuesday afternoons.

Because of Nan’s unorthodox faith and penchant for colorful food, no one in my family batted an eye when she showed up for Easter dinner carrying a sweet, circular braided bread, studded with unnaturally vivid hard-boiled eggs, and sprinkled with pastel nonpareils. We simply knew it as Nan’s Easter Bread.

Nan passed away before the internet was fully up and running, so I had no idea baking colored eggs into bread was a thing outside of Nan’s Paschal tradition until I was walking around the Tipperary County town of Cashel on Good Friday 2009 and passed a bakery with confection similar to her Easter bread in the window. I emailed a photo to my siblings with a caption that read “Channeling Nan in Ireland. She sent me this. Happy Easter!”

The Republic of Ireland is indeed a largely Catholic country, but it is not likely the origin of Nan’s style of Easter bread. According to Maine-based food writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins, who also keeps a house in Tuscany, Easter sweet breads and other springtime-specific pastries, are common throughout Italy and Greece, where the braided bread is called tsoureki and the eggs in it are a deep, deep red.

Harmon Jenkins singled out the Neapolitan pastiera di grano – a wheatberry and ricotta pie perfumed with orange blossom water, cinnamon and candied fruits – as one pastry whose origin narrative predates the Easter story. It involves an ancient Greek mermaid named Partenope who cast herself into the sea and drowned when her songs failed to entice Odysseus. Her body washed ashore at Naples. Lore, literature and art depict Partenope protecting the people of Naples from eruptions from the Mount Vesuvius volcano.

Ancient Neapolitans, the tale is told, made offerings to Partenope of all the ingredients in this spring treat. Orange blossom water symbolized the wealth of the land, ricotta was proffered by the shepherds, the eggs given to symbolize rebirth, wheatberries (held in high regard by Demeter, the goddess of agriculture) cooked in milk represented the union of plant and animal kingdoms, the spices came from foreigners showing their respect, and the sugar was presented to denote the sweetness of her voice. The mermaid mixed the offerings together and created pastiera di grano.

“April is about the time (Italian) farmers start to worry about whether the wheat is coming along nicely for a June/July harvest, so it stands to reason that they’d be doing all sorts of juju to make it right,” Harmon Jenkins said.

In the Friuli region of Italy, bakers make Gubana, a strudel-like Easter bread filled with walnuts, pine nuts, raisins and cocoa, that dates to the 16th century. Colomba Pasquale, an Italian Easter bread made since 1930 in Milan, flavored with amaretto and decorated with candied almonds, is made from the same sweet dough as Christmas panettone. The bread’s name, which means dove in Italian, comes from the traditional practice of molding the dough into the shape of a dove to symbolize peace.

The three strands of this traditional Easter bread represent the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Nan’s version is officially called Pane di Pasqua. When it is baked in the shape of a wreath, it symbolizes the crown of thorns worn by Jesus. The hope of resurrection lay with the eggs. When the dough is braided with three pieces, Father, Son and Holy Ghost are all present as one.

My cousin Mark is the keeper of Nan’s recipes. He didn’t have this one in his book, but as a professional baker himself, he pointed me toward a French brioche. I found plenty of recipes on-line regarding how to make the sweet dough and flavor it with orange zest and anise seed, but dying the eggs is only implied, not specified.

Nan was a straight-on food-coloring gal, maybe adding a touch of vinegar to help soften the shell to take on the colors. I grew up on classic, packaged PAAS Easter Egg kits in which aspirin-sized pellets of red, yellow, green and blue get dissolved in white vinegar and water and the eggs get dipped into the dye with a wire wand that came in the box. You could carefully cut egg-sized circles in the box so dyed eggs could stand up to dry.

PAAS expanded its line of kits over time. I’ve since done the tie-dye PAAS, the foil-wrap PAAS, the galactic PAAS, the shimmering pearl PAAS, the neon PAAS and the emoji PAAS eggs with my own kids. But as a recent empty nester, I have neither time constraints nor whining teens who’d rather be elsewhere than in my kitchen staring down a dozen eggs. This year, I am looking for something a bit more natural than Yellow #5, Red #40 and Blue #2.

I’ve got farmer friends who will sell me lovely multicolored eggs in a single dozen. Egg color, the University of Michigan Cooperative Extension website explains, is determined by the genetics of the hen who produces it. The breed indicates what color eggs she will produce. Leghorn chickens lay white eggs, Orpington’s lay brown and Ameraucana produce blue eggs. An Olive Egger, a chicken that lays olive green eggs, is the product of a cross between a hen and rooster from a brown egg– and a blue egg–laying breed. An interesting tip is to look at the chicken’s ear lobes; typically, they will signal the color of eggs she will lay.

All eggs start out white, though. As the eggs travel through the hen’s oviduct, a journey that takes about 26 hours, pigments may be deposited on the shells. Ameraucana birds have oocyanin, a pigment that permeates the shell to turn it, inside and out, blue. Brown-egg laying birds deposit the pigment protoporphyrin on the eggs late in the process, so the coloring is only on the shell’s exterior. Red eggs come from dye.

You place the colored eggs in the dough before it rises for the second time. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

I was already deep into testing potential dye ingredients in my kitchen when a  press release from Dole Food Company crossed my desktop. The fruit company has spearheaded a social media campaign encouraging families to use food waste – onion skins, the last of the purple cabbage, the uneaten beet in the back of the vegetable drawer – to make natural Easter egg dyes.

“Since fruits and vegetables cover the full rainbow of vibrant colors, you can pretty much use any produce to get unique results,” Melanie Marcus, Dole’s nutrition and health communications director, is quoted as saying in the press release.

The process takes a little patience. In my testing, 1 cup of sliced red beets for red eggs, shredded purple cabbage for blue, red onion skins for lavender or yellow onion skins for green, left to sit overnight in 1 cup of just-boiled water yielded deeply colored water once I strained the solids (some of which I repurposed in a salad). I also mixed dyes using 2 tablespoons turmeric for yellow eggs and 4 teabags of Lemon Zinger Tea for orange ones.

I added 1 tablespoon of vinegar to each cup of colored water to make the finished dye. Then it’s a matter of dropping in a hard-boiled egg – either white or brown, but the final color will obviously vary — and waiting. For fully saturated color, I let the eggs sit in the dye for an hour before removing and drying them. I then returned them to the dye to sit a second, third or fourth time. When they’d turned the hue I wanted, I rubbed each dyed and dried egg with a little vegetable oil for sheen. Nan, a use-what-you-have-on hand-before-buying-anything-new kind of woman herself, would have been proud to feature these eggs in her Easter Bread.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer, tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

Columnist Christine Burns Rudalevige sprinkles Nan’s Easter Egg Bread with nonpareils. Derek Davis/staff photographer

Easter Egg Bread

This is a close approximation of my grandmother’s colorful Easter tradition. Since the whole, colored eggs get baked with the bread you can use raw, colored eggs in this recipe instead of pre-boiled ones if you prefer the eggs to have a softer middle.

Makes 1 (12-inch) circular loaf

1/2 cup warm milk (between 90-100 degrees F)
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2¼ teaspoons (1 packet) active dry yeast
4½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 orange, zested and juiced (roughly 2 teaspoons zest and 1/2 cup juice)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon ground fennel seed or pure anise extract
6 dyed whole eggs (raw, soft or hard boiled)
1 teaspoon nonpareils

Combine the warm milk, sugar and yeast in a measuring cup. Set aside until it begins to foam slightly, 5-10 minutes. Combine 3 ½ cups flour and the salt in a large bowl.

Take 2 tablespoons of the beaten egg and put them in a small bowl.  Mix in 1 teaspoon of warm water and set the egg wash aside.

Add the yeast mixture, the remaining eggs, the orange juice and zest, the melted butter and the fennel seed or anise extract to the flour. Stir until moistened. Add the remaining flour to the dough, a little at a time, mixing until the dough comes together. The dough should be soft but not sticky. You may not need all the flour.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead smooth until smooth, 5-10 minutes. Place the dough in a clean, oiled bowl, cover the bowl with a damp towel, and set in a warm (70-75 degrees F) place to rise to twice its size, about an hour.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide it into 3 equal pieces and gently roll each into an 24-inch long rope. Pinch one end of all 3 ropes together and braid the strands loosely. Shape the braid into a ring on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Tuck the dyed eggs into the braid. Be sure to place them slightly closer to the center of the ring to avoid them falling out during the final rising time.

Brush the ring with the reserved egg wash staying clear of the eggs. Sprinkle with nonpareils. Let the ring rise until puffy and nearly doubled, 45-60 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Bake the bread until the top is golden and the bread sounds hollow when tapped gently, 25-30 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and cool the bread on the pan for 10 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

Don’t throw out the veggies you used to make natural dye. Repurpose them into this Purple and Red Easter Salad. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Purple and Red Easter Salad with Sweet and Sour Dressing

Since my naturally dyed Easter egg experiment called for beets, cabbage and red onions, I used all three to create this vibrant salad.

Serves 4

2 small red beets, washed
1 small red onion, peeled
1/2 cup white vinegar
1 tablespoon maple syrup
2 cups shredded purple cabbage
1/4 cup olive oil
1 garlic clove, grated
Salt
Pepper

Use a mandoline to thinly slice the beets and onions into a bowl. Add the vinegar, maple syrup and ¼ cup hot water to the bowl. Combine and let sit at room temperature for 1 hour.  Drain the pickling mixture off the vegetables into a mason jar.  Add the cabbage to the quick-pickled vegetables.  To the mason jar, add the olive oil and garlic and give it a good shake.  Add as much dressing to the bowl as you like. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve.

Store extra dressing in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.


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